Brian Hillestad’s Veteran Community Farms Aide Veterans

Hillestad and Veteran Community Farms are partnering with Riverbend Environmental Education Center and an aquaponics venture to promote farming and job support among veterans.

DOING HIS PART: Exton’s Brian Hillestad at Riverbend Environmental Education Center in Gladwyne. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)
Photo by Jared Castaldi

Click here for statistics on veterans and healthcare.

Brian Hillestad was driving home from work in June 2010 when he heard an NPR report that shocked him. A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report revealed the government’s shameful secret: One in five homeless men is a veteran of the United States military—and it’s affecting more vets from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts than from any other war in our history. Of the homeless veteran population, 51 percent has physical disabilities, 50 percent suffers from some form of mental illnesses, and 70 percent battles substance abuse.

The facts ate at Hillestad. The 40-year-old Exton-based architect’s father served in Vietnam, and his father-in-law fought in Korea. Hillestad would spend the next three years researching the issue and finding a way to help. His Veteran Community Farms will teach job skills to vets while providing them with steady employment and income.

- Advertisement -

In his research, Hillestad became an impassioned investigator, spending late nights searching the Internet for reports from the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs and organizations like the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. “The statistics were horrifying,” says Hillestad. “I kept thinking, ‘How did the government let this happen?’”

He quickly realized that, when left without adequate healthcare or job training, veterans with physical and mental problems slipped through the cracks and often ended up on the streets. Hillestad decided to interview wounded and homeless veterans, and then tell their stories in a book and documentary film. To find subjects, he contacted the Coatesville VA Medical Center and Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia.

He soon met Erica Leigh Gabor, a Philadelphia native who was 22 when she joined the Marine Corps in 2003. Wanting to serve her country, she volunteered for the most dangerous job a woman could perform: driving Humvees loaded with cargo through Iraq’s IED-laced roads. In her first 18 months of service, Gabor received the Marine Corps Achievement Medal and was promoted to corporal, a rare honor for a woman.

In 2005, a mortar attack on her camp left Gabor with what was diagnosed as post-concussive disorder. She declined a medical discharge. “I was in Iraq to defend my nation,” she says. “No headache was going to take me off the field. I’m a Marine.”

But it wasn’t just a headache—it was a traumatic brain injury. Discharged in 2006, Gabor has since had 15 other concussions and lives with blackouts, balance problems, nausea and chronic pain. Classified as 100-percent disabled, she’s on 16 medications but has no long-term medical treatment plan. Pain limits her daily movements; mental anguish almost ended her life. On the five-year anniversary of her injury, she attempted suicide. The date: June 15, 2010—about the same time Hillestad was motivated to action.

- Partner Content -

The two met at Broad Street Ministry, where Gabor volunteered to share her story with Hillestad. After her suicide attempt, she realized that revealing the truth of her experience was not being a disloyal American or betraying the Marines. If Hillestad asked, she’d tell. What struck Hillestad about Gabor and other vets he interviewed was the training they’d received. “Many had very technical knowledge—or at least had acquired a skill set—as part of their jobs in the military,” he says. “Why couldn’t they learn new skills and turn them into careers?”


Hillestad had read about horticultural therapy. Its benefits were first documented by Pennsylvania’s Dr. Benjamin Rush, who served as a surgeon general of the Continental Army until he publicly rebuked George Washington for the insufficient medical treatment soldiers received. The Department of Defense used horticultural therapy to help World War II vets cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, addictions and physical rehabilitation. According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, farming and gardening done in rehabilitative settings can help strengthen muscles and even improve coordination, balance and endurance. It helps improve memory, cognitive abilities and socialization as it enables people to work independently, problem solve and follow directions.

Gabor understands why horticultural therapy works with veterans. “It gives vets daily structure and routine tasks—and, boy, do we love those,” she says. “You could work as a unit with other vets, so there’s that camaraderie we love. Not only do we thrive in those circumstances, but it’s the absence of them that creates problems for us when we return to civilian life.”

In this age of farm-to-table, locally grown food, Hillestad believes veterans can generate income from what they produce. He found the key to making agriculture a year-round enterprise in Pennsylvania’s climate: greenhouses, where farmers can grow herbs, fruits, vegetables, even fish.

Aquaponics is the growing of fish in a system of tanks inside greenhouses. Hillestad learned about it at a three-day aquaponic seminar in 2011. Then, with help from vets at Coatesville VA Medical Center, Hillestad built a greenhouse on his property. In one year, the 200-square-foot aquaponics tanks produced at least 300 pounds of tilapia. Convinced of the idea’s commercial and therapeutic values, Hillestad has created Veteran Community Farms to bring aquaponics and greenhouse vegetable farming to other areas. He recruited Gabor as a board member.

- Advertisement -

Now, Hillestad and Veteran Community Farms have two big projects in the works. One effort is a partnership with Riverbend Environmental Education Center in Gladwyne to build a 4,300-square-foot aquaponics greenhouse. Groundbreaking is set for this fall, and the greenhouse will be operational by January 2014.

The second project will bring aquaponics to an abandoned 200-square foot greenhouse at the Coatesville VA Medical Center. Hillestad is raising the $40,000 he needs to complete the renovation. And he’ll have a ready supply of farmers, as the center includes a 95-bed facility for homeless vets.

To Gabor, Hillestad is a hero. “When we enlist, we take an oath to protect and defend the United States of America,” she says. “But that’s not the only way to serve your country. What Brian is doing is selfless and truly amazing. Not bad for a civilian.”



Vets in Need

The makings of crisis.

Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs


Veterans in the United States


Vets in Pennsylvania (fourth highest state population in the U.S.)


Pennsylvania’s state ranking for money spent on veteran care.


Number of calls the National Call center for Homeless Veterans recieved in 2012 (up 123 percent from 2011).


Number of actively suicidal vets saved by the Veterans Crisis Line.

Our Best of the Main Line & Western Suburbs Party is July 25!